Gracq, Julien (Pseudonym of Louis Poirier)
Eugenia V. Osgood
In Au Château d'Argol, as elsewhere in his writings, the approach of Julien Gracq to history is basically that of a Surrealist. History, which is for him mainly culture and civilization, is only a thin crust above what he calls "le tuf paléolithique" of our primitive drives…. [By] and large, Gracq sees the movement towards historicity as something limiting and deadening…. The deep history of humanity or of the human "soul" (a word Gracq very much likes) is to be seen primarily in a spacial perspective, as it erupts here and there on the surface of the planet. (p. 319)
Yet Gracq, the history professor, does not entirely turn his back on historical fact. On the contrary, from certain real events he selects materials to illuminate and intensify his narrative, while always taking care to remove them from their setting in time…. Myth—that "counter-history" of the Surrealists, a crystalization of human dreams where (in the words of Aragon) the "visage de l'infini" [aspect of infinity] lurks behind concrete forms—is always present in Gracq's work. There is no sharp cleavage between history, myth and nature, but rather an interpenetration, a working-together toward a gradual disengagement from the historic and toward a dénouement which is also a liberation.
Argol [the castle of Au Château d'Argol] is the archetypal castle of Celtic legends and Gothic novels, so dear to the Surrealists. However, it has been shaped by history, and through its architecture and furnishings history continues to exercise an indirect influence on the human beings who are within it…. The architecture of the building is a jumble of styles, designed to cause uneasiness and a feeling of dépaysement. A mixture of medieval and barbaric elements, its irregularity attacks the very idea of completeness…. (pp. 319-20)
The juxtaposition of contraries and the emphasis on the unusual create a tension which can be both exciting and ominous…. [The] material details, especially the architectural ones, are almost the equivalent of historic determinism, conveying the idea of predestination, of an ineluctable fate regulating the actions of the characters. The whole castle appears like a cage constructed by a sorcerer to coerce the inhabitants and to mold them to his own perverse whims. To counteract the spell cast by history, barbaric elements are introduced, both in the castle and in its surroundings. The wild and the untamed are suggested by the many animal pelts, by the "savage" horizon, by the virgin forest, and by the brilliance of the sun. (pp. 321-22)
The castle/forest relationship is a live and dynamic one: the castle is obviously a "lieu privilégié" [privileged place] which, in spite of all its historic shortcomings, allows man to enter into a pact with nature. On the other hand, the cemetery, also laid out by man, is only an assemblage of old stones, gradually sinking into the sand. The contrast between the permanence of the natural universe and the transitoriness of all that is human is graphically represented in the chapter's final passage where a "navire célèste"—a majestic cloud—slowly passes through the sky above the graveyard…. (p....
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What differentiates Un Balcon en forêt from the preceding three novels of Julien Gracq [Au château d'Argol, Un beau ténébreaux, and Le rivage des Syrtes], which are based on imaginary situations, is that it is apparently concerned with historical events, namely the first seven months of the second world war in the Ardennes forest, in the district where the decisive German offensive was to take place. The events, however, provide only a broad framework in which other forces are at play. This is clearly brought home to us by the presence of an intricate intertextual network, consisting of oblique or direct references to Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Gide, Jules Verne, André Breton, Saint-John Perse, Rimbaud, Lewis Carroll and probably many others, and by an equally powerful thematic structure giving the work a type of coherence that is not dependent upon the actual historical content of the "story".
Among the numerous literary references, there are two that are very different from the others in their scope since they play an important part in establishing the specific tonality of the book: the Wagnerian epigraph and the allusion to E. A. Poe's Domain of Arnheim….
On the most literal level, the epigraph reflects the situation of Grange and his men who are indeed "guardians of the forest," but beyond this fact, the very name of Parsifal conjures up all sorts of connotations that tend to make us forget the contemporary setting. (p. 132)
Medieval allusions are present throughout the book, together with a certain evocation of the enchanted woods of fairy tales…. This vaguely evocatory magic provides the setting in which images of enchanted sleep find their place—the deep enchanted sleep that in Wagner's Parsifal envelops the castle and forest of the wounded Amfortas…. It is the strange heavy slumber of the guardians of the Grail, pervading Gracq's own interpretation of the legend in Le Roi Pêcheur, that dominates "cette armée au bois dormant."… Sleep, the enchanted sleep of the Sleeping Beauty, figures in its very essence waiting…. The dawn which the guardians of Amfortas' castle are waiting for is neither a positive nor a negative signal. It points neither to success nor catastrophe. It says only that something will eventually happen.
The early allusion to Edgar Allan Poe's Domain of Arnheim, an account of a symbolic boat journey to a domain where the traveller may find bliss is in itself more clearly valorized. The journey related by Poe is preceded by an exposition explaining that the individual, under certain fortuitous and unusual circumstances may be happy…. Poe's hero travels by boat to the castle of Arnheim, the ideal place he has found to seek happiness. The seemingly normal boat carrying him into the maze of enchanted streams becomes a fairy bark gliding magically into still waters in the middle of which is the splendid castle of Arnheim. (pp. 132-34)
The beginning of Grange's journey from Charleville to Moriarmé follows a similar pattern. As the author establishes firmly the geographical reality, with the train following the meanders of the river between the hills, through pastures as neat as an English lawn, through ever-deepening gorges, he is also marking a fairly specific parallel with Poe's symbolical journey…. Grange's rêverie before he sleeps at the end of the first day is the departure point for a passage to a different world…. The ugliness is being left behind to be replaced by the starry night. Is this, as in Poe's tale, progressive discovery of bliss? In any event it is clear that Grange's journey up to the "Balcony in the forest", although it is presented as a real physical journey by train and army truck, is more of a movement into self, into solitude. Movement is thus replaced by immobility. What is a reality at the beginning of the book becomes symbolical, an image of movement in the stillness, which is not without its threatening aspects.
The Poe signal takes on an added significance in the light of Gaston Bachelard's reading of the Domain of Arnheim in L'Eau et les rêves…. Poe's rêverie is that of...
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